Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Toussaint Louverture Was Being Really Nice to Napoleon When He Compared Himself to Him

Quick, how many 18th century rebellions in the New World led to permanent independence for a colony from their European founders?

If you're like the majority of the readers of this blog (and one hundred percent of the writers), you probably live in the result of one of them; it's called the United States of America. Breaking away from Britain certainly didn't end imperialism in America, or, and this will be important, slavery, but still, being a colony that breaks away from your parent country is not an easy thing. There was only one other in the Americas: it was in Haiti, and it wins the revolution contest because, unlike the American Revolution, it not only achieved independence, it eliminated slavery. Boom. American Revolution: 0, Haitian Revolution: 1. Score one for the Francophones.

Now that that's cleared up, let's talk about the guy who, if you did a side-by-side comparison of the two revolutions, you'd probably have to call the Haitian George Washington, but I won't, because frankly this guy deserves better than to be compared to a wooden-toothed slave owner. This man is Toussaint Louverture, and he kicked ALL the asses. Not some of the asses, not most of the asses, all of the asses. In fact, in regards to the whole "what other leaders could you compare him to" thing, he personally claimed to be, basically, the black Napoleon (well, or he called Napoleon the white Toussaint Louverture. It's a little ambiguous, we'll get to that), but, as you can see from the title of this piece, that clearly does Toussaint a disservice. He was way too politically and militarily savvy to be compared to anyone who would try something as droolingly stupid as attempting to invade Russia.

No, Toussaint was not Washington, and he was not Napoleon. He was what would happen if the French Revolution had sex with Machiavelli's The Prince, and then raised their baby in slavery with the allegorical figures of Justice and Liberty as its lesbian foster mothers, and finally pitted it against the governments of all available major nations.

I'm not sure any of the above is biologically plausible, but if it is, that's where Toussaint Louverture came from.

On a non-allegorical level, Toussaint's birth was a little less promising than that. He was born a slave, in what we now call Haiti, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. This was sometime around 1743 (yeah, I know, that's not the 19th century. But-spoiler-he died in 1803, which clearly IS the 19th century, and also, it's my blog and I do what I want.). It was probably the first of November, as astute speakers of French may have gathered from his name, which means "All Saints" which is a holiday, which is on the first of November. I like how I make it sound like that's something you should've been able to figure it out...unless there are some really perceptive French-speaking Catholics reading this, I doubt anyone did. If you did, though, give yourself three Historical Revolutionary Points. Earn 100 and get a free prison sentence! Haha, you thought you could win something good by racking up Historical Revolutionary Points? Have you been reading this blog at all? Good things consistently fail to happen to historical revolutionaries.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, Toussaint was getting himself born. Some people say that Toussaint's father was a man named Gaou-Ginou, an African chieftain or king of the Arada tribe in what is now Benin. Thing is, there's really not very much reason to think that, and Toussaint actually identified another man as his father, a slave named Pierre Baptiste Simon. Of course, believing him to be the son of a king would feed into a lot of people's ideas about fate, and royal blood, and a lot of other stuff I find to be bullshit, which is why I prefer the "his father was just some guy" theory, especially as it has the added benefit of being probably true.

Royal blood or no, Toussaint had a fairly uneventful youth. Basically, in summary, he was a slave, but seems to have been relatively well treated. He even got an education, though it's hard to be exactly sure where and how. Part of what historians who are interested in him do is speculate as to where he picked up his learning, and just what he was reading; he said, wrote, and did things that made it clear he'd read a range of thinkers from the Classical period to the 18th century, and he spoke French, in addition to the Creole language spoken by Haitian slaves. He also had some medical knowledge. It's possible he was trained by some Jesuits who were hanging out at the time; he was definitely pretty into Catholicism. It doesn't really matter where he got his knowledge, what matters is that by the time he reached adulthood he knew more than enough to be dangerous. It's possible no one taught him anything at all; it's possible he simply walked up to the allegorical figure of Knowledge and talked her into telling him everything she knew. I'm not sure what it is about Toussaint Louverture that makes me think of him in such allegorical terms; I think it has to do with the fact that he was basically too awesome to be discussed in mere human terms. Or it's possible that I just got tired of elaborate similes after that last Emma Goldman essay so I've decided to switch to a weirder literary technique. Next up, pathetic fallacy!

Toussaint was set free at the age of 33. He married, and got a plantation of his own. He owned one slave in the course of his life, whom he did eventually set free. So, one day, Toussaint is hanging out, he has a wife and kids, stuff is going well-ish, when a revolution starts. I know, I know, that really sounds like the beginning of a movie starring someone like Mel Gibson. Actually, the thought of Toussaint Louverture being in the same room as Mel Gibson is so delightful I'm just going to sit here and think about it for a second. Hee, it's funny because Mel Gibson ends up violently dead. Anyway.

Toussaint may have been involved in the planning stages of this revolution, he may not. Ah, the trickiness of history. Anyway, it started with an incident known as the Boukman Rebellion, which began with a secret voodou ceremony in the woods, where slaves were called upon to rise up against their masters. It didn't come out of nowhere, this rebellion; it had been brewing in Haiti for a long-ass time, which is what happens when you have a system of slavery in a relatively isolated location where slaves outnumber owners ten to one. More than that, though, the French Revolution had just gone down, and slaves, not to mention the vast population of free people of color in French-controlled Haiti had damn good reason to start wondering when all that liberte, fraternite, egalite stuff they were hearing about was going to make it across the ocean. When it failed to do so (trans-Atlantic navigation was tricky in the 18th century! It probably got lost, got stuck in the Gulf Stream, and wound up in Canada), a rebellion was really the only logical step.

Here's the really funny thing. It wasn't just the black Haitians who were talking about revolution. The white slaveowners were talking about having an entirely different revolution, specifically because they were afraid that all that liberte, fraternite, egalite stuff was going to start messing up their lives in Haiti! So, with the slaveowners thinking of breaking away from France, and the slaves and free blacks thinking about becoming equal, it was pretty much time for violence. And hey, the slaves had been victims of violence for a while, so it was their turn. The rebellion started with an uprising of slaves, who killed their masters and burned the plantations (the backbone of the world's sugar industry). Off to a good start! But oh man, they hadn't even gotten started yet.

Toussaint, when the rebellion started, actually went back to the plantation of his former owner. Not to take revenge, but to protect the family who used to own him and give them a chance to flee the attacks. You could say he had Stockholm Syndrome, or you could just say he was an amazingly good person, and objectively a better person and a better Christian (if that's something you want to get into) than any of the slave owners on the island. After demonstrating that he was an excellent candidate for sainthood (which was good, since he was already All Saints), Toussaint joined the rebel slaves in the mountains.

When Toussaint first joined the rebellion, it was as a doctor. How cool is that? He started out as a freaking combat medic. And then became a military commander. How often does that happen? Rarely . That's how often. (Thanks to an astute reader for pointing out my error here: I had written "never" but Che Guevara is another very good example. Thanks, astute reader Michael Meissner!)

France sent re-enforcements, and victory was at first looking really unlikely for the rebels. At this point, they were asking for better conditions for slaves, not the actual elimination of slavery. That seemed like too crazy a goal, at that point.

Ok, this is the part where I fess up to the fact that I am not a military historian. Or an historian at all, but that's beside the point, which is that I am not at my best when talking about military strategy and the like. I am going to attempt to do justice to Toussaint's actions, but remember, this ain't my area. If you are a military historian, try to gently correct me in the comments if I say something dumb.

So, in 1791 Toussaint was involved in a hostage standoff. There seems to be a tendency among white military leaders to be especially willing to tell non-white military opponents who are holding hostages to go fuck themselves. I base this analysis on what happened in the case of Toussaint, and also Cochise. See, that's a trend right there. In all seriousness, I'm sure there's a big fat racist reason behind that; a refusal on the part of the white people to deal with their opponents on the rational level they would deal with someone they consider their equal. In this case, though, the white guys told Toussaint that he and his demands, which were for better working conditions for slaves, and a bit of a prisoner exchange, not the abolition of slavery or anything crazy like that, could go fuck themselves. In doing so, they seem only to have been setting up an opportunity for Toussaint to show off how great a guy he was.

When someone doesn't give in to your demands, and you're holding hostages, you kill the hostages. That's how hostages WORK. Toussaint, though, decided that he was too good a guy for that, and saved the white hostages, even going against some other military leaders who were like "dude, this is what hostages are for." Toussaint returned them, and tried to use that as an opportunity to meet with the white leaders and talk to them like grownups. That didn't work, because they were still being assholes, but at least the hostages ended up alive, so win there, I guess, for humanity in general, and Toussaint's tendency not to kill people it wouldn't actually help him in any way to kill in particular. This might have made Toussaint appear weak, had he not gone on to pretty much kick the faces off anyone who tried to oppose him (military term) until the black Haitians ultimately controlled the whole colony.

To get there, Toussaint did a bunch of military things, in a military fashion. He was allied with the Spanish early on, because France was being dickish about slavery, and the French were beginning to recognize him as a legit leader. He was known for keeping a disciplined, European-style military camp, with soldiers trained in both the Old World style of war as well as guerrilla tactics. It was around this time that he started calling himself L'ouverture, which is the French word for an opening. He probably got the nickname due to his gap-toothed smile, but it says something about his awesomeness that a lot of the historians (and contemporaries) who talked about it figured it must have something to do with his tendency to create openings in his enemies' lines. Man couldn't even give himself a slightly self-deprecating nickname without everyone rushing to assume it was something about how awesome he was.

Oh, by the way, that gap-toothed smile was courtesy, not of genetics or a lack of orthodontia, but of a bullet hitting Toussaint in the fucking face. Toussaint Louverture, catching bullets with his teeth. What've YOU done lately? Yeah, that's what I fucking thought. Stand up and salute when you think about Toussaint Louverture!

A couple things also happened around this time. The first big one is that Toussaint apparently decided that, fuck it, the abolition of slavery was now something he wanted to be fighting for. Aiding him in his fight against the French (and also the British) was the Yellow Fever, which killed the hell out of white people in the more tropical regions of the New World. Toussaint earned a reputation for being an utterly kickass military leader.

Eventually, France changed its mind about slavery. This was, as you are probably aware, a rather tumultuous period in French history, and it would've been weird if it hadn't changed its mind about slavery at some point, considering it was changing its mind about issues as fundamental as who should and who shouldn't retain ownership of their heads. The thing is, that as much as maintaining their neckal integrity was a pressing issue for French leaders, hanging onto Haiti was also a concern, and the best way to do that was to get in good with Toussaint, and the best way to do that was to change their minds about slavery. So France became pro-abolition, and, abruptly, Toussaint became pro-French.

There were a bunch of pesky Spanish and British still running around Haiti at this point, and now that Toussaint was on the French side (or, more accurately, now that France was on Toussaint's side), he got down to work getting rid of them. At one point he won seven battles in as many days. Again, I am forced to ask you what you've done lately. Personally, in the last seven days, I've managed to do, but not put away, my laundry. Some people are so accomplished and competent I feel inadequate to the task of even reading about their lives. Toussaint became governor of the colony, too, just because hey, who else were they going to put in charge? Someone who wasn't Toussaint Louverture?

Actually, there was someone else, and this is where Toussaint's really Machiavellian nature starts to make itself clear. There was this dude, right, a white guy named Leger-Felicite Sonthonax, who had come from France to ensure equality for free people of color, and slavery for slaves. He'd succeeded at the first, but as it became increasingly clear that he wasn't going to succeed at the second, he backed down and decided he too was ok with abolition, as it looked like the only way of maintaining a hold on Haiti. It was he who, in 1793, declared the emancipation of all slaves in Haiti (the impetus for Toussaint joining the French, remember?). The problem was, that when Toussaint became governor, Sonthonax still had a lot of power, as did a French general named Laveuax. So, what's a brilliant military commander to do when faced with a couple white guys who seem to think they're in charge? Organize a military campaign and kill the everloving shit out of them, right?

Toussaint opted for something way more subtle, nonviolent, insulting, and awesome. Which, now that I think about it, was actually super French of him. He embarked on a complex political campaign against the two men, ultimately basically getting them elected to positions that would entail them going the hell back to France. Yes, he got them voted off the island. (Wow, I just dated myself with that reference, didn't I? I don't care, it was too appropriate.) When it comes to devious, Machiavellian methods of getting people off your back, arranging for them to be elected to a post that will force them halfway across the world wins you an billion points. After all, no one could say he didn't do right by the guys; he just got rid of them.

It worked on Laveuax, but Sonthonax tried to hold onto his power in Haiti, ultimately shooting himself in the proverbial foot by letting French privateers operate against American ships. Doesn't sound like something Toussaint would've cared about, except for the fact that black Haitians were trying to trade with the United States, and privateers were making that hard. In addition to making trade hard, it gave Toussaint the excuse to finally make a military move against Sonthonax, who ended up getting the hell out of Haiti, and following Laveuax to France.

Occasionally, some asshole would decide that they were up to the task of Machievelliing Toussaint (yes, it's a verb. Because I said so, that's why.) They were so, so wrong. Two such assholes were a Brit named Maitland, and a French guy named Hedouville, both of whom attempted clever manipulations of the political situation in revolutionary Haiti. Toussaint schooled the crap out of both of them, working with one until it no longer became convenient, then spreading nasty rumors about the other to spark a popular uprising against him. You really shouldn't fuck with Toussaint Louverture.

Stuff was changing again in Europe, and now Napoleon was the boss of France. He started making new laws. Meanwhile, by total non-coincidence, Toussaint was drafting a constitution for Haiti. It had some great provisions in it like banning slavery, and making Toussaint in charge for life. It was also extremely likely to piss of France, since the whole point of it was to get in front of Napoleon's plans to make some new laws for the colonies in the New World. Not being an idiot, when it came time to present this constitution to France, Toussaint handed that job off to an underling, just to see what would happen.

Sending an underling to accomplish a task likely to piss of Napoleon is not a nice thing to do, in any sense. But it sure is smart, because that underling ended up in exile for a while, on the island of Elba (it was a popular exile spot). Basically, Napoleon was pretty sure that this was all just a sneaky attempt on the part of Toussaint and the other black Haitians to get their island to become independent of France. Toussaint tried his best to convince Napoleon that this wasn't the case, most awesomely by subtly trying to draw a comparison between himself and Napoleon. When I say "subtly" I mean that he wrote Napoleon a letter with the heading "from the First of the Blacks to the First of the Whites." Like I said, it's hard to say whether he was saying that Napoleon was like a white Toussaint Louverture, or that he was himself a black Napoleon. Either way, it's a ballsy comparison to make when you're talking to a guy who was, at the time, considered the greatest living military genius. I'm also not sure who died and made Toussaint King of All the Black People, but I'm sure if someone had had a problem with it they would have said.

Ballsy though the letter might have been, Napoleon did not deign to answer it. This is because he was kind of a dick. It is also because he was under intense pressure to get Haiti back under French control; it was still a huge part of the global sugar industry, after all, and even if Toussaint kept insisting that he was going to keep the place nominally French, getting rid of slavery was going to have a big impact on profits, and Napoleon couldn't have that, now could he? Not when he had extremely well-thought-out military campaigns in Russia to plan.

Napoleon ended up sending some men to Haiti to restore French control, through diplomatic means. Well, I say diplomatic means. That is, he said diplomatic means, but for some reason he felt the need to back up that diplomacy with twenty-thousand troops. You know, for extra diplomacy. Nothing says "diplomacy" like an invading army. It is possible, I think, that the United States may be taking a few too many foreign policy tips from Napoleon. Speaking of which, the concept of a black republic was scaring America just as much as it was scaring France. There was a sense, in both countries, that the mere existence of an independent Haiti would mean violent slave uprisings, and the end of the institution of slavery itself. Napoleon named stopping "the march of the blacks" as his primary goal, while slave-owners in the United States tried desperately to keep word of what had happened in Haiti from their slaves.

Toussaint, not being an idiot, was pretty cognizant of the fact that when the French said "diplomacy" and then showed up with an army, they probably weren't being entirely sincere. He was fully prepared for this to become a war. It was the French who made the first aggressive move, attacking a fort along the coast. Unfortunately for Toussaint, he was right in the middle of a little bit of infighting with a rebellious general, ad besides, this was the Napoleonic army we were talking about. His plan to basically let them have the coast, retreat into the highly defensible mountains, and wait for the yellow fever to kill them might have actually worked, but there were some breakdowns of communication (and loyalty) that lead to some of the generals not making the retreat. In the end, Toussaint, and his family, were captured by the French forces.

Toussaint was sent to France as a prisoner. On his way, he made his most famous, and most bad-ass comment ever, informing his captors that by removing him from power they had cut down "only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are many and they are deep."

He turned out to be completely right about that. Although he died in prison less than a year later, (pneumonia...kind of the yellow fever of Europe, when it came to killing people from different climates, though the conditions he was held in certainly didn't help. Rather than being afforded the treatment he should have had, given his rank, he was treated like a common criminal.), Haiti would go on to achieve complete independence and lasting freedom that same year. It was the world's first independent black republic.

Napoleon's dickish comment on the shitty way he had treated Toussaint (years after he had been forced to give up all of his holdings in the New World, as a direct result of the success of the Haitian Revolution) was "what could the death of one wretched Negro mean to me?"

You know, Napoleon was kind of an asshole. And as disingenuous as he was racist, because for a guy he didn't care about, he sure spent a lot of time trying to kill him.

So that, in brief, is the life of Toussaint Louverture, the man who brought freedom to Haiti. His legacy has been celebrated in countless ways, and that's all well and good, but here's a thought to take away with you when you consider what gets a historical hero recognition in the modern day; Danny Glover has been trying to get a movie made about Toussaint for years now. Hollywood just isn't interested. Because, you see, there are no white heroes to bring in the crowds. Deal with that for a second. We don't get a movie about one of the greatest military minds, and greatest fighters for freedom, because all the white guys in his story act like asshats. Toussaint Louverture is being punished, post-mortem, for the fact that virtually every white guy he ever met either owned him or wanted him dead.

Man, I was going to make a point. I forget what it was. Fuck the movie industry for believing white audiences wouldn't want to see a movie without a white hero, fuck white audiences for repeatedly proving them right, and fuck the movie industry again for thinking white audiences are the only ones that matter.

Causes: Haitian independence, abolition of slavery
Specific lessons for modern activists: Fuck Napoleon. Seriously. I'm sorry, I know there are other lessons, but that's the most pressing one right this second.


  1. For more insight into Imperialism and slave rebellions, watch Marlon Brando in Queimada (Burn!), his favorite role.

  2. You said that Toussaint joined the rebellion as a doctor and became a military commander, and said that that never happens. Isn't Che Guevara another case? It doesn't take away from Toussaint's assomeness however.

  3. You know, at the back of my mind when I wrote that was this little voice saying "someone else did it too, and it was a major revolutionary," but I couldn't place the thought and so ignored it. You are quite right, of course. Thanks for catching that!

  4. (I've edited the paragraph to reflect your correction. Thanks again!)

  5. Steampunk Emma Goldman. I have never said this to or about anyone. I'm saying it now for the first time. I am a fan and you are a fantastic thinker! How do we multiply you a couple of thousand times over?

  6. Liked your blogs and your writing very much!

  7. SEG,
    I know this is a bit belated, but what a great post! On the subject of a movie about Toussaint, are you aware of the Gillo Pontecorvo film Queimada? While not a biofilm in the historical sense it was nevertheless based on the Haitian revolution. Marlon Brando plays a character based on the Englishman Maitland. Brando has said that this was the best role of his career.

  8. And now it seems that Mos Def has a chance at playing Toussaint.

  9. That's great! I would love to see that.